At precisely 10 p.m. Saturday at the American Philosophical Association's sprawling conference in the Philadelphia Marriott - the annual mass gathering of those who practice the world's oldest non-conclusive profession - a philosophical point was made.
Evondra Acevedo, the academic group's employment coordinator, had announced that the "Candidates' Room," where graduate students and others apply for teaching jobs, was closed for the night.
She'd been going since 3 p.m. A sign announced that the room would close at 10 p.m. She asked the 11 candidates still seeking service to come back in the morning.
One young woman complained that she and her friend had been waiting for 30 minutes. A young man declared that he faced a 9 a.m. interview and needed service
Acevedo politely listened, but stood her ground. She informed them, "Sorry, but I can't help you."
That unguarded remark provoked a graduate student standing in front of her to near apoplexy.
"That is JUST NOT TRUE
" he exclaimed, eyes rolling before his peers as if sharing a logical discovery that had escaped previous generations. "That is SIMPLY NOT TRUE
" he repeated, as if expecting her to take up the argument for the con position.
If cooler heads had not prevailed, he might still be there, explaining to her the finer points of modal verbs (e.g.,
It was yet another sign during the last four days - along with the long beards reminiscent of 19th-century lithographs, the scraggly-haired women with wire-rim glasses, the elbow-patched 1950s sports jackets - that days before the Mummers, another colorful species had hit town.
Though many still associate philosophy with ancient Greeks strolling through agoras, philosophy's modern setting, aside from the classroom, is the carpeted, partitioned meeting room of a big-city convention hotel.
Unlike almost all other academic groups, the American Philosophical Association, headquartered at the University of Delaware in Newark, holds three meetings a year, one each for its Eastern, Central and Pacific Divisions.
At the conferences, philosophy professors give papers and seek book contracts, graduate students seek jobs, and philosophy publishers seek the microset of Americans who buy their books.
The Eastern Division meeting is by far the largest, taking place every December between Christmas and New Year's in a major eastern city. Known in the profession simply as "APA," it draws about 2,500 attendees each year - 2,200 in this recession year - and serves as the profession's chief hiring fair.
On Sunday night, Jeremy Morris, 31, currently in a one-year visiting position at Ohio University, scrutinized the Candidates' Room bulletin board for last-minute notices.
Equipped with a doctorate from the University of Miami and a specialization in philosophy of language, Morris said he was encountering the same problem facing job seekers in other academic fields this year: freezing of advertised job searches and positions by universities and colleges cutting costs.
"I've had one interview this year," he said, "whereas I had a number last year. I've had letters saying searches have been canceled."
The scuttlebutt among APA's roughly 550 job-seekers was that more than 10 percent of 300-plus advertised positions may have been canceled. Morris, in his second year in the philosophy job market and handsomely outfitted in suit and ponytail, remained upbeat, even playful.
"I'm single, good-looking, athletic, 6-4, my phone number is. . . ." he joked into a reporter's tape recorder.
Asked where he'd be willing to go to teach philosophy, he replied, "Anywhere on the planet. Anywhere at all. Whether or not I get paid.
"To tell you the truth," he quickly added, "the only thing that could push me out of philosophy is the student loans I've accrued."
Passion for their subject marks people in philosophy more than it does those in disciplines with more obvious employment options. And that feeling appears as healthy as ever.
In recent years, the APA has helped by displaying greater openness to diverse philosophical traditions. This year's program offered sessions sponsored by the Association of Chinese Philosophers in America, Concerned Philosophers for Peace, the Ayn Rand Society, and many more. The smorgasbord drew even distant non-job seekers to APA.
Joshua Weinstein, 41, a native Philadelphian whose serves as director of studies at Jerusalem's Shalem Center - an Israeli think tank currently launching a new liberal arts institution, Shalem College - decided to make his first visit to APA.
A Princeton grad with a doctorate in classical political philosophy from Hebrew University, Weinstein thinks "philosophy is becoming much more exciting as long-established presumptions are falling away. . . . There are just a lot of things going on that I did not expect would be going on, and, I suspect, were not going 10 years ago."
To be sure, the panel on "Philosophical Perspectives on Female Sexuality" was not your grandpa's APA. Indiana University's Elizabeth Lloyd, in her paper on "Analyzing Bias in Evolutionary Explanations of Female Orgasm," crisply outlined how male assumptions ludicrously distort "Darwinian" explanations of this explosive adaptation.
And the University of South Florida's Rebecca Kukla - a professor of obstetrics and gynecology as well as philosophy - offered a brilliant analytic comparison, in her "Depression, Infertility and Erectile Dysfunction: The Invisibility of Female Sexuality in Medicine," of male-directed ads for Viagra and ads aimed at female sexual dysfunction, demonstrating the ongoing belief that female sexuality, unlike male, cannot be located in a specific body part.
At the same time, as at all APAs, major philosophers jousted and expounded. Following a memorial session for Richard Rorty, an American philosopher who broke free of the field into wider public recognition, Princeton's Cornel West, the noted African American thinker who has done the same, asked how others might do so.
One answer unlikely to satisfy West could be found at the book exhibits, where 40 publishers displayed wares.
Dominating the stand of Open Court, a philosophy press, were volumes in its best-selling, much-imitated series "Popular Culture and Philosophy," whose constantly appearing new titles include
The Matrix and Philosophy
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Philosophy
- all collections of essays by philosophy profs on the import of their pop-cultural subjects.
"Our all-time best seller," confided David Ramsay Steele, the house's top editor, "is
The Simpsons and Philosophy
- more than 500,000 copies sold."
Put that in your pipe, philosophy skeptics, and smoke it.